A new era for Kazakhstan
by Andy Potts|07 FEB 2020
Arkadi Shestakov (right) is one of the emerging talents on Kazakhstan's team at the Olympic Qualification Group H event in Nur-Sultan.
There’s a new generation emerging in Kazakhstan. Many of the old guard – dual nationals like Brandon Bochenski, Kevin Dallman and Marty St. Pierre, or locals such as Vadim Krasnoslobodtsev, Maxim Semyonov and Roman Savchenko – are absent for this year’s Olympic Qualification tournament.

In their place, though, an exciting crop of young talent is coming through. The class of 2020 made an impact in Thursday’s game against Ukraine. Arkadi Shestakov, 24, got a goal and a pair of assists, 20-year-old defenseman Vitali Orekhov went 1+1 and Dmitri Shevchenko, in his second season with the national team, also found the net in that 8-1 victory over Ukraine.

All three have developed thanks to their experience in the KHL with Barys Nur-Sultan, a team that provides all but four of the Kazakh roster here, plus head coach Andrei Skabelka and the bulk of his staff. For Shestakov, playing his first season in the KHL after making his competitive international debut at last year’s World Championship Division IA, this is the time for his generation to make its presence felt.

“We have a lot of guys aged maybe 22 to 26,” he said. “We’re getting to that age where we need to play. We need to get more games at this level, and we need to start influencing those games.”

Shestakov has certainly been doing that. He has 55 KHL outings with Barys this season, scoring 16 (9+7) points as the Kazakh team battles at the top of the Chernyshev Division. That came after steady progress over recent seasons in the second-tier VHL with Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk, progress rewarded with last season’s World Championship call and a first goal in senior international hockey.

“Playing in a league at the KHL’s level you quickly learn that you must work hard,” Shestakov added. “Every game is a battle; you can’t take it easy against opponents like that.

“But we have a good team, there’s a great chemistry, very good partnerships between us, and our staff are very strong as well.”

That offers a cross-over to the international arena. With so many Barys players on the national team, playing for Kazakhstan often feels like a continuation of club hockey. And it was clear that much of the fruitful play between Shestakov and defenceman Darren Dietz – the pair combined on two goals – stemmed from an almost instinctive grasp of each other’s games.
Nigel Dawes with a scoring chance against Ukraine.
But what of the old school? Nigel Dawes, a naturalised Kazakh since 2015, admits that he’s feeling the passing of time. A veteran of seven seasons with Barys before his 2018 move to Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg, he’s hoping for one last shot at making the Olympics with his adopted country – and looking at the rising young talents on the team to help realise that dream.

“It definitely feels like a change of generations,” he said. “A lot of the guys that took citizenship at the same time as me have retired, I think there’s only Dustin Boyd left. We’ve got a new crop moving up. I’ve seen them playing really well all year with Barys and we have some very good players here.”

As for himself, Dawes is looking at this Olympic qualifying cycle as a chance to fulfil one last career ambition and get to the Games. “The Olympics comes around every four years, I turn 35 on Sunday so it's just simple maths,” he said. “Part of the reason I took Kazakh citizenship was to have that chance of going to the Games.

“Of course, it’s hard that we need to win here to get through to the next stage but all we can do is take care of business here and give ourselves that opportunity in August to qualify for the Olympics.”